My mom contracted polio when she was 14. She survived and learned to walk again, but my life was deeply affected by that virus. Today, as our larger society attempts to self-distance and self-isolate, my family has texted about the polio quarantine my mom was put under: how my grandma fearfully checked my aunt’s temperature every night because she shared a bedroom with my mom; how they had to put a sign on the front door of the house that read “quarantine” so that no one would visit.
Growing up with a polio survivor, I learned lessons about epidemics, sickness, disability, and inequality that have forever shaped my world. From a young age, I saw that all of us should be valued for our intrinsic worth as human beings; that there is no line between the supposedly deserving and the undeserving; that we should be loved for who we are, not what we do or how much money we have. My mom modeled for me what’s possible when those most impacted by inequality and injustice dedicate their lives to protecting others from what hurts us all. She taught me that the dividing line between sickness and wellbeing loses its meaning in a society that doesn’t care for everyone.
Here’s the simple truth of twenty-first-century America: all of us live in a time and in an economic system that values our lives relative to our ability to produce profits for the rich or in the context of the wealth we possess. Our wellness is measured by our efficiency and — a particular lesson in the age of the coronavirus — our sickness, when considered at all, is seen as an indication of individual limitations or moral failures, rather than as a symptom of a sick society.
About 31 million people are today uninsured in America and 14 states have not even expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The healthcare system is seemingly structured in defiance of the people it should serve, functioning as yet another way to maximize profits at the expense of millions. In this coronavirus moment, many more Americans are finally awakening to the bitter consequences, the damage, wrought when even a single person does not have access to the resources he or she needs to live decently or, for that matter, survive. With the spread of a pandemic, the cost to a nation that often treats collective care as, at best, an afterthought should become apparent. After all, more than 9,000 medical workers, many not adequately protected from the disease, have already contracted it.